The promise of digital libraries speaks to one key part of the Alexandrian ideal: to provide access to a “universal collection.” Another facet of the ideal is the creation of special places in which collaborative learning and research, and creative work generally, take place.
If libraries are to remain dynamic, the spaces that define them and the services they offer must continually stimulate users to create new ways of searching and synthesizing materials. There is no question that almost all the library functions being planned for today will need to be reconfigured in the not-too-distant future.
-Geoffery T. Freeman, Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space
And from among the chorus of rational behaviors arose the word sanctuary. Not sanctuary as in a place that was always and for every use absolutely quiet (although the need for quiet space, group and solitary, came up repeatedly). But the idea of a place steeped in the symbolic behaviors associated with libraries, from quiet contemplation to cultural enrichment, resonated through our entire meeting.
-K.G. Schneider, Celebrating Sanctuary
Demas calls for the creation of a place where collaborative learning and research take place, alongside creative work. Freeman wants the design of the place to stimulate new ways of working in libraries. Schnieder proposes a sanctuary. In a word, these ideas have risen from the very ashes of Alexandria:
The Great Library of Alexandria has assumed legendary qualities in the centuries since its creation and demise. The concept of a universal library, an institution containing all the intellectual works of the world, is one that has enchanted scholars for centuries. But where did such a concept originate? While there are indications of earlier attempts, the first lasting attempt, and the one that has become fixed in the cultural consciousness of western civilization is that of Alexander the Great. Old Persian and Armenian traditions indicate that Alexander the Great, upon seeing the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, was inspired to combine all the works of the various nations he conquered, translate them into Greek, and collect them all under one roof. While this inspiration was certainly prompted at least in part by a desire to consolidate information, and thereby power, under Greek authority, it is also an indication of Alexander’s desire for his empire to be a multicultural empire — albeit one unified under the influence of Hellenism.
-Heather Phillips, The Great Library of Alexandria?
The caveat is generous. Alexander was consolidating power and information, and wanted to unify his empire (his power). Demas wants a “universal collection.” Freeman wants to provide external stimuli. Schnieder’s sanctuary contains the rational behaviors which embody themselves in symbolic actions. While it is not counterpoised directly against these ideas, I want to give voice to another force that librarians need to understand and accept: the Feral.
Having photographed in inner city environments for over 15 years it dawned on me recently that — despite all the destitution and abandonment — there was liveliness there that’s missing in the more regimented suburban environments we encounter every day. In fact it is was a landscape filled with political and vernacular artistic expression.
But look again, and some other, emerging, trends come into focus. Rising oil prices and greater work flexibility increase the value of the local; the rise of digital rights management fuels campaigns around openness; the number of books published every year continues to rise; issues of access and equity – and affordability – come into sharper focus as one austere year rolls into another; the relationship between the tangible and the digital object becomes increasingly complex; new attitudes to ownership (using, not having) make the library appear as a pioneer.
-Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “if libraries did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them”
In the face of organization, the universal, the rational, the church-like sanctuary, the feral can seize more opportunities than it is given. It is localized, it is vernacular, it only responds to stimuli if it needs to, and its voice makes a mess of expectations hoisted upon it. There is no “pioneering spirit” in the library of Alexandria; it is one of consolidation of power, not redistribution through a community. The pioneering spirit provides a home for the feral. It is where creativity lies, in not participating fully in environments created through enlightened planning, but taking what it needs when it needs it. We don’t need to pick one or the other, but understanding and planning for the pioneering and the feral will help us meet many of our patrons on their own terms. On the frontiers, and not in the seat of power.